It was a blood bath. A methanol tanker crashed into a bus, killing 36 people and injuring more near the Chinese city of Xian on Aug. 26. Soon after the accident, a photograph appeared online of Yang Dacai, the local official in charge of road safety, smirking at the scene of the crash. The photo prompted a flood of Internet anger. The comments of netizens soon moved from the official’s demeanor to the value of the watch on his wrist. Bloggers managed to unearth pictures of Dacai wearing 11 different luxury watches, together worth many times his official salary. Last Friday, the Chinese media reported that Dacai had been sacked after an investigation into corruption.

Yang Dacai is just the latest focus of an electronic herd whose activism and anger appear in sharp contrast to the staid and controlled official politics in China. The regularity with which these scandals erupt helps explain why an opinion poll in China 18 months ago revealed that 70 percent of senior Chinese officials live in a state of “Internet terror.”

Over the last few years, officials at all levels of government in China have fallen prey to electronic vigilantes who have exposed corruption by looking at the value of officials’ possessions or the misdemeanors of their relatives. This is what makes the effect of the Internet on Chinese politics so paradoxical: It could seriously lengthen the life of China’s one-party state. In much the same way that the market has saved the country’s Communist Party, China’s state-controlled Internet could save its leadership.

Deng Xiaoping, one of the reformers of the Communist Party in China, feared the destructive power of unfettered markets. He envisioned “socialism with Chinese characteristics” as an incremental attempt to harness the power of the market while maintaining control of the commanding heights of the economy. Although officials live in terror of the Internet, the party has developed a sophisticated approach that gives citizens a chance to air their views even as it retains control of the servers.

The Internet reaches 538 million people in China, and approximately half of them are on Sina Weibo, which is often called China’s Twitter. Sina Weibo seems to operate as a public sphere where netizens exchange news and views on a range of issues far too sensitive to be covered by the China mainstream media (as the case of Yang Dacai makes clear). Although it is possible to air grievances against party officials and policies on the network, China’s Internet is only a semi-free environment.